Good Help is Hard to Find

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Seven Questions to Ask When Searching for an Outsourcing Partner


Increasingly, higher education institutions are finding themselves forced to do more with less. With reduced funding, difficulties hiring and retaining staff, and unexpected challenges like a global pandemic to contend with, business offices in particular have become overburdened. Those challenges are likely to continue and even worsen in the face of the looming 2026 enrollment cliff, which may see enrollment (and therefore revenues) fall by as much as 15 percent.


With that enrollment cliff looming on the horizon, student retention is more essential than ever. Surveys have indicated that as much as 24 percent of student attrition can be directly attributed to poor customer service. It’s become essential for the business office to be more efficient than ever — without compromising on student-facing services.


To find a satisfactory balance, many schools are turning to outsourcing for customer service, particularly for call center support and certain administrative tasks that can get in the way of full-time staff focusing on what they do best. In fact, 83 percent of campuses are increasing partnerships with private firms in an effort to deliver the best campus experience in the most efficient ways possible, making it hard to find an institution that isn’t outsourcing in some way.


1. When does outsourcing make sense?


Outsourcing can enable school to gain better control over any number of functions on campus. It provides an economical and efficient path to adding expertise, increased capabilities, and business savvy.


Contracting with the right partner not only provides manpower you need to reduce the workload of existing staff, but can also help overcome other related challenges, including:

  • Human resources: Are viable candidates available to hire? And how quickly can you onboard them so they’re contributing?
  • Technical issues: Are there even enough phone lines and computers available to staff up?
  • Physical space: Do you have enough desks to accommodate new staff?
  • Seasonal demand: Are you hiring staff that will just be idle after a January or September surge?


In addition, outsourcing partners are experts in their own right. Contracting for call center support, for example, can help you instantly add staff with extensive experience providing phone support – no training or managing required. They should be well versed in best practices like first contact resolution, quality assurance and managing staffing forecasts. They can also provide their own technology to get administrative tasks done as efficiently as possible.


So what makes for the best outsourcing partner for a higher education institution’s business office? Here are some important questions to ask before entering any agreement for call center or administrative support.



2. Do they understand the business of higher education?


Call center outsourcing is a $91.5 billion industry and expected to grow an additional 21.7 million between 2022 and 2026. There is no shortage of vendors with experience and expertise handling your excess call volume if that’s all you want. But many of the challenges schools face aren’t merely a call center or staffing issue, but one that’s more central to the nature of higher education.


It can be challenging to find someone who cares as much about your students as you do. A partner with experience in the industry will understand the mission of higher education and tailor their support around it. They will have clear understanding of student issues, factors that can affect customer service request volume, and a whole host of other considerations unique to the culture of colleges and universities. This understanding can help these vendors be proactive rather than reactive, allowing them to identify the underlying reasons for student calls and suggest solutions that will increase student satisfaction in ways that are even more cost-effective than call center support. 


3. How seamlessly do they integrate into your campus?


If your solution provider truly becomes an extension of your staff, students will never know they’re ever interacting with third-party support. Your partner should be willing and able to provide their services a white label solution. Emails sent by them should appear as if they’re coming directly from your school, and there should be no difference in the way they handle inbound and outbound calls compared to your staff. 


Ideally, your partner would send a team to work onsite to observe, learn and understand your processes. All outsourced team members need to have in-depth training on your school’s processes, procedures, standards and systems. If school staff are available, they should also have essential training in how to best use their new partner and include them in workflows. 


While the onboarding process needs to be comprehensive, it should also be efficient and respect staff’s time. After all, the goal is to reduce their workload, not add to it.


4. Do they just provide humanpower, or do they offer solutions?


Throwing more bodies into your phone banks can certainly reduce wait times and reduce student frustrations, but what if there are solutions that help staff work more efficiently or even reduce the need for human interaction altogether? 


Before taking on overflow call volume, a good partner will help you explore and implement technology to triage calls. Solutions like interactive voice response (IVR) can ask questions to ensure a call isn’t routed to the business office if the student really needs to talk to the financial aid office. They can also help design proactive outbound email and call campaigns to proactively address issues with students rather than waiting for students to call or come to you. 


A truly great partner will also seek to apply emerging technologies to the business of higher education, further enhancing administrative efficiency. Artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots, for example, can learn on the job, creating workflows and automating processes within the office. ECSI’s own chatbot, for example, has decreased chats sent to agents by 75 percent, decreased phone calls by 54 percent and earned a 0 percent abandoned rate.



5. Can they scale and adapt to your needs?


There’s an inherent seasonality to the higher education business office coinciding with the starts of each semester (and the subsequent payment due dates.) An outsourcing partner with experience in higher education will understand and proactively adjust to changing demand.


You should find a partner interested in analyzing your historical data to better forecast staffing needs. Once fully onboarded, they should be able to handle call volume and other administrative needs seamlessly even at peak demand.


While seasonal fluctuations can be predicted, one-off and overflow projects can pop up suddenly in the ever-changing landscape of higher ed, each demanding significant staff attention. Instead of shopping around for new outsourcing partner every time a project warrants it, look for a partner capable of offering a wide array of assistance and equipped to jump in and help on short notice. 


6. Are they answering calls or actively increasing student satisfaction?


Spending less time on hold is a surefire way to make students and family happier when they must interact with the business office, but a solid outsourcing partner should go above and beyond to identify additional ways to increase student satisfaction.


While the phone bank may be where most interactions with your business office occur, ECSI surveys have shown that 90 percent of students would rather to avoid voice calls altogether. Many feel in over their heads about finances and probably haven’t had to make uncomfortable calls about the subject before. Providing support over live chat, text, email and social media can lower their anxiety and increase their satisfaction. Many of these channels come with the added benefit of allowing staff to respond when it’s convenient for them rather than requiring them to perform on-demand while the student is on the line.


If the outsourcing partner implements best practices like first contact resolution, they can help turn your help desk into a place where a dreaded task can turn into a positive experience. When a student has contact with the business office, staff can take the extra time to do a quick account review, educating and reminding them of upcoming deadlines and other events, and simply asking if there’s anything else you can help them with while you have their attention. Taking care of a problem now can save students from the hassle of coming back later.



7. Does the cost structure reflect your usage and meet your needs?


Your institution should not pay for idle time. Seek a partner that only charges you or the time their team spends assisting your students or performing the administrative tasks you need. Pricing should be straightforward, simple, and flexible to accommodate increases and decreases in usage.


At the same time, your vendor should bear the cost of required equipment and technology, allowing you to increase your capabilities in leaps and bounds without a large upfront capital investment.  Phone lines, computers, software licenses and other costs are all part of the outsourcing solution you’re paying for.



Can they prove their value to you and commit to improving?


Many outsourcing partners will measure their success by how fast they can handle calls and other tasks. A valuable partner will also factor how well they’re achieving your goals.


When negotiating a contract, look for a partner that is willing to tie compensation to the quality and completion of the task you’ve challenged them to take on. Key performance indicators often include:

  • First contact resolution rate
  • Quality assurance / customer satisfaction scores
  • Number of complaints filed (both formally and even on social media)
  • Escalations where supervisors get involved
  • Speech analytics that can analyze helpfulness and friendliness of a contact
  • Social media sentiment scores


Robust reporting tools offer transparency and accountability into your business relationship that your partner should welcome. Detailed reports and dashboards will provide you with the insight you need to manage the relationship. Just as importantly, your partner should proactively use it to help refine their processes and better server your students over time.



Trust ECSI, the partner that checks all the boxes.

With more than forty years of higher education experience, ECSI understands the challenges schools face managing budge while striving to deliver the best possible student experience. That’s what led us to develop our OutsourceSelect solution, a cloud-based contact center support solution that adheres to all the best practices for higher education.


When you implement OutsourceSelect, ECSI Training Specialists will arrange for staff to visit your school for comprehensive onsite training. This ensures we completely understand how your school operates and the service level expectations. You’ll only pay for the time our Advocates spend assisting students, and ECSI will manage the telephones and technology used to support your school at no additional cost. OutsourceSelect can quickly scale your services to handle fluctuating demand. Quality assurance is monitored through call monitoring, speech analytics, customer feedback surveys and a wide variety of other means, with continual training and re-training to finetune our customer service. Customizable dashboards and in-depth reporting keep your staff up to date about every interaction.


Interested in learning more about how OutsourceSelect can help your institution? Schedule a demo today.